Our Baptist Heritage of Religious Freedom

The first amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

When you consider the freedom of religion that we have (particularly in light of recent Supreme Court decisions) there are some people we should be thankful for.  Certainly, the founders of our country like Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, come to mind.  Jefferson also believed the Constitution should include a Bill of Rights for the citizens of the new country.  But he is not the only one we should thank.

We should also be thankful for a man much less well-known—John Leland.  Leland was a Baptist pastor from Virginia who argued for religious liberty in the new country.  Leland even wrote to George Washington about the topic of religious liberty.  Leland and other Baptists were so adamant concerning the new Constitution’s lack of specificity on the issue of religious liberty that he organized Baptists against its ratification.  Finally, Leland convinced James Madison, a representative from Virginia to make religious liberty and indeed an entire Bill of Rights a plank within the new Constitution.  Upon ratification, Madison introduced 10 amendments which formed the basis for our current Bill of Rights and the first amendment above.

Leland, a Baptist, played a significant role in guaranteeing religious freedom for our infant country more than 200 years ago.  Leland believed:

(1)that the rights of conscience are inalienable, not subject to either government permission or restriction; (2) that the establishment of religion by law always damages religion; and (3) that the real motives for establishment are not to benefit religion but to buttress the power of civil rulers and augment the purses of ambitious clergy.[1]

Would that more Baptists, Christians, and U.S. citizens today understood the beautiful privilege and glorious responsibility of religious freedom found in our nation.  Thank God for men like John Leland who spoke up for religious liberty.  And thank God for founding leaders like Jefferson and Madison who listened to the voice of the people.

[1] McBeth, H. Leon, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, Broadman, 1987), 274.

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

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